Monday, July 16, 2012

Home: A Sermon

The following is a sermon I gave at Pine Lake Life Camp (formerly family camp) over the 2012 May long weekend.

Read Luke10:25-37

HOME: What images or words does this word conjure?

The point for this morning’s talk is quite simple: we all desire home, so loving your neighbour as yourself, being a neighbour to others, means bringing home to the world.  That is the church’s mandate, and it needs to be the basis of our daily living decisions.  We’re going to go through Genesis 1 and 2 to see what home is.  We’ll see how humanity became homeless, but not just humanity; and then we will consider the work of Christ to make this world home again.  Finally, we will see that as Christians we are called to restore this home for others.


Genesis one and two gives us our first and best glimpse of what home is.  Stanley Jaki, a theologian who wrote a book on the history of the interpretation of Genesis 1, has an interesting take on this particular passage.  Far from being simply a scientific description of creation, Jaki thinks Genesis one is a word picture demonstrating construction.  Specifically, creation by God is likened to a tentmaker building a tent.  To see this, we need only follow the six days:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  Now the earth was formless and empty.  Darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the waters.  And God said, ‘Let there be light!’  And there was light. 

In verse 2 we have the image of darkness.  Now, in order to build, you can’t build in the dark – you have to turn on the lights.  Jaki likens day one to a construction worker plugging in the flood lights.  Light fills the workspace, allowing construction to commence.

Bill Cosby famously said, ‘In the beginning there was nothing.  God said ‘let there be light’ and there was light.  There was still nothing, but you could see it a whole lot better.’

Not to ruin the joke or anything, but Cosby isn’t being entirely scripturally accurate when he says this, because in verse two we have the presence of water before light is made.  Water in the first few chapters of Genesis often represents chaos – think of the Floodwaters of Genesis 7 for instance.  So God says let there be light, and the light reveals chaotic working conditions.  The builder has got his work cut out for him.

On day two, God clears out a working space.  Within the waters he extends a firmament.  The Hebrew word for firmament is notoriously difficult to translate, but it does not seem to indicate simply sky, but something hard and with substance.  Something akin to the roof of a tent, that stretches from horizon to horizon.   This firmament holds back the waters above from the waters below, and between these separated waters, permitted to exist by the firmament, is space for creation.  The firmament itself with its associated space God calls shamayim, meaning roughly sky or heaven.

On day three the floor of the tent is constructed.  The lower waters are moved aside so that dry ground can appear, and from the ground spring all sorts of plants that will eventually be used for food.

On day four the sun and moon and stars are placed in the firmament, much like we would hang chandeliers from our ceilings.

And so the tent is complete; all that remains is for something to populate it.

On day five the structures of day two, the sky and seas, are populated by birds and fish, and on day six the structure of day three, the land, is populated by land animals, including humans.  One could even say that the structure of day one, light, is populated on day four by beings of light (remember, at times the Hebrews worshipped the sun, moon and stars – they would only do this if they thought these heavenly bodies were in some way heavenly beings).

And so life is introduced, but this is a fragile life, surrounded by the chaotic flood waters.  Its existence is not self-sustaining, but requires the work of the Creator to actively hold back those waters.  When He chooses not to, the result is the Flood.

This view of the world as a tent of life amidst chaos is certainly a non-scientific view of the world, but it seems to be the view that the surrounding cultures had of the world when Genesis one was written.  We even see support outside of Genesis 1 for this tent interpretation.  In Psalm 24:1, for instance, we read

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,
    the world, and all who live in it; 
for he founded it on the seas
    and established it on the waters.

Psalm 104:10 reads, ‘he stretches out the heavens like a tent.’

Job 26:11 discusses the pillars on which this tent canopy rests.  In the Flood account, the firmament is opened like a window and the waters that it is holding back come flooding in.   

This is not to say that the world is actually surrounded by waters with a firmament holding them back and the sun is actually hanging from the firmament.  Rather, there is an important lesson in this interpretation of Genesis, a lesson that we have been guilty of overlooking because we want to have answers to an evolution debate that frankly did not exist when the text was first written.  The lesson is this: the world was made to be inhabited.

It is no mistake that the image of a tent was chosen for God’s creation.  The Hebrew people were nomads, they were tent dwellers, so God chose to represent the entire world as one vast home.  Their homes were simply microcosms of a much grander home constructed by God.

We further see this focus on the world as home in the arrangement of the days of Genesis 1.

In Genesis 1:2 the earth is described as being formless and empty.  In Hebrew these are rhyming words, and so they draw our attention as being words of importance.  On Days 1 to 3, indeed, we see form coming from formlessness, as the structures of the world, such as light, seas and sky, and land, are formed.  On days four through six, these formed habitats are then populated, and they are populated in a particular order.  The light of day one is populated with the beings of light on day four.  The waters and sky of day two are populated with the birds and the fish of day five.  The land of day three is populated with the land animals and humans of day six.  So there is order and progression in the account: the formless is formed, the empty is filled, the tent is inhabited.

(As an aside, we can see on days three and four how the Hebrews dealt with transitional beings, the plants and stars.   Plants reproduce like animals but lack motion, and are structures of life for many living things; they therefore belong with the formation of the land.  The sun, moon and stars have motion like the animals, and they clearly are not habitat (and, today at least, we would say they ‘reproduce’ – supernovas spawning the stuff of new stars, stellar nurseries and the like) and so belong on day four.)

Now, what does such an account of creation as home entail?  What are its consequences?

First, we need to recognize that the world was not made to be a resource to be exploited.  It was made to be a living-space to be inhabited.  That is the main image of creation – as a tent, not as a mine.

Secondly, it was not made solely for human habitation.  It was made to be inhabited by numerous organisms.  Indeed, God even makes a promise to these organisms.  He promises to provide them with food, and he promises to provide them with the ability to be fruitful and to multiply.  A lot of people miss this key point.  On day five God blesses the birds and the fish with the blessing of abundance.  This is the same blessing he gives to us on day six.  The word for blessing here is barak, which is the same word for God’s covenant with Abraham, or Isaiah’s blessing of Jacob.  This is a powerful promise God makes to the animal world, and he makes it because this world was never meant to be just a home for humans, or a place just for human comfort, but a vibrant living space for all living things.

Third, it is precious because it is fragile.  It is a bubble of life surrounded by darkness and chaos, and it could be easily destroyed.    

Now, what do I mean when I say that creation was made to be home, for ourselves and for others?  I mean this in two ways:

First, in the literal sense, we were made to dwell in this earth.  It is interesting to me that we have no record of Adam and Eve building houses or cities or other items that keep nature out.  At least, we have no image of that before the fall.  The world was their home.  The animals were their companions.  It’s a very idealistic picture of our relationship with nature, in which the earth itself is our habitation and we have no use for any other structures.

But I also mean it more specifically from a relational and communal perspective.  Home is not just where we live, it is where we belong, and as such it is marked by the relationships that we need and crave.

We find four main relationships being expressed in Genesis 1 and 2, and these relationships are the hallmark of home in this second sense of the word:

First there is the relationship within a species.  Plants, animals and humans are all brought into the blessing, to be able to produce more of their own kind, to populate the earth, to ensure that it is always inhabited. 

Second, there is the relationship between man and the created world.  In Genesis 1:26 humans are made in the image of God, and this is immediately defined in terms of ruling over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the living creatures that move along the ground.  In 1:28 this rule is extended to the earth itself.  In Genesis 2 we see what this rule was to look like.  It was not to be a rule of harm, or a rule of self-indulgence.  It was to be a rule of intimacy and service.  This intimacy is shown in Adam’s naming of the animals.  God brought the world into being through naming it, Adam was to show his rule over the animals by naming them.  Naming indicates ownership but it also indicates intimate understanding.  Adam was asked to reveal the names of the animals, to bring forth their true nature.  This is intimacy.  The idea of service comes from Adam and Eve’s rule in Eden, where they were given the mandate to serve and protect the natural world.  Reproduction ensured that the world would be inhabited; their job was to ensure it remained habitable.

Third, there is the relationship of the ecosystem.  Since all things are literally living under the same tent, their interactions are an important part of home.  When God creates each thing, he declares it to be good or beautiful; it is only when all the pieces are in place, when the ecosystem is fully constructed, when all things are fulfilling their roles collectively, including humans, that God declares creation to be very good, superlatively beautiful.

Finally, home is marked by the relationship between God and his creation.  In Genesis 2 God is fully present in the life of Adam and Eve, walking in the garden in the cool of the day.  But God also has an active role in the rest of his creation.  His promise was that the animals would be fruitful and multiply, and he fulfills this by working alongside of Adam to ensure that the world remained habitable.  God caused the plants to grow, said plants being a promised food source, while Adam and Eve tended them.

So this is home.  Creation is envisioned as one giant home for all living things, a perfect and peaceful place in which humans exhibit a rule under God that mirrors God’s rule, that is, a rule of sacrificial love and peace.  In this account the garden is our city, relationships abound rather than technology, and nature is embraced rather than destroyed. 

How, then, can we sing songs like ‘This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.’  ‘If heaven’s not my home, then Lord what will I do?  The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door, and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.’

There is something tragic about that song.  It implies that we are homeless, that we are restlessly seeking for our true home with God.  Indeed, such a song can only be written in the second part of our story, which is Homelessness.


In Genesis 3 Adam and Eve give in to temptation.  The temptation is to be like God – the consequence is that they get their wish, but without the power.  Before, God grew the plants while Adam tended; now Adam would have to toil to get his crops. 

Before, Adam and Eve lived in intimacy with nature.  Now, according to Genesis 9, the fear of man was upon the animal world. 

Before, the world was their home.  But now they are homeless in both senses of the word.  The relationships that marked home have gone into disrepair.  And as a consequence, since one aspect of home was our rule over nature, our abuse of rule has led to changes in the world itself, such that our home is full of pollution and disease and degradation.  We have to build homes to hide ourselves from our home.  In some places our true home has become so toxic that not even houses can keep the poison at bay.  Think of Chernobyl or Nagasaki several decades ago.  We are east of Eden. 

Our homelessness is exhibited in chapter four, when Cain kills Abel.  It is exhibited in the curse of being fruitful and multiplying found in chapter 6.  The writer of Genesis says that population growth was no longer a blessing, because with the multiplication of humans came the multiplication of sins, such that creation itself grieved God.  We see our homelessness in Habakkuk 2:17, when God tells the Babylonians that their destruction of animals will terrify them.  We see our homelessness in our separation from God, in our exile, in our sins.

But humans are not the only things to be made homeless through sin.  The living creatures that inhabit this world are now homeless as well, because the relationships that made this world home to them, namely, their relationship with us, has been corrupted.  We rule after our own interests, and not after theirs.  Sinful man turned ruling through service into ruling through dictatorship and conquest.  In Genesis 9 warfare metaphors are used to describe man’s rule in a fallen world.  Since all created things live together under one roof, the homelessness of one becomes the homelessness of all.

But through this hope is given.  A people are called to be God’s chosen people, a nation through whom all nations will be blessed.  And what is this nation promised?  How will their blessing come about?  Through a promised home.  What was the promised land if not an appeal to Eden?  A land flowing with milk and honey, a land free from hardship, a land of promise and Edenic rest.

The Israelites were never  told that this world is not their home– they were told that this world was once their home, and can be their home once again, through the grace of God.

The Promised Land was just one geographic area, just as the Israelites were one nation among many; but they both anticipated a blessing to come, a return to home.

So we sing that this world is not our home, I’m just a passing through, and emotionally this is true but I think it puts our hope in the wrong place.  Every time we feel awe and wonder when looking at creation, every time we get away to be with nature and feel a bit of peace or a bit of wholeness, I think that is simply us longing to be home again.  The Bible does not, so far as I can tell, promise us a spiritual home in heaven; it promises us a new heaven and a new earth.  A restoration of Eden, maybe even of Eden glorified, but certainly not just a spiritual soul-filled heaven.

Romans 8 tells us that creation itself is groaning.  The home has been degraded, and its creatures have become outcasts.  But Paul looks forward to a time in which creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and made free once again, in which home will be restored for all things.  And this will only occur when we ourselves are made free, and can once again rule as we should.  In Colossians 1 Paul argues that this great freedom and restoration of both ourselves and all of creation is made possible only through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And so what does this mean for ourselves?  Given that we too have been promised a restored Eden, and given that Christ’s work has been done, is being done, and will one day be done, we the homeless are called to live as if home were already restored.  This means, of course, that we the homeless must act as neighbours.

Being neighbours

A story: a man is walking from one great city to another when he is attacked.  He is beaten and stripped and mugged and left for dead.  A great religious man comes walking down the road, but ignores the hurt man.  He even crosses the street so he doesn’t have to be in the same space as the hurt man, so he can justify ignoring him.  Another religious man does the same thing.  Finally a Samaritan comes along.  This Samaritan was wandering through a land that did not belong to him.  He was a stranger in it, surrounded by people of a different ethnicity, people who worshipped at a different temple, people who believed that he, the Samaritan, was a heretic.  And then he sees one of these Jews lying bleeding on the ground, and he goes to him.  He binds up his wounds, he carries him to an inn, he spends the night to ensure that the man is okay, and he pays the innkeeper handsomely with a promise to return.

This Samaritan went above and beyond what you or I would likely do.  I would like to think I’d take him to the hospital, but stay the night?  And promise to return?  And pay his expenses?  I don’t know.

After telling this story, Jesus does not answer the question, who is my neighbour.  Instead he asks, who was the neighbour, to which the begrudging reply is the good Samaritan.

Obviously there is a lot that could be said about this passage, but within the context of homelessness what do we learn?

1. We learn that the mandate of the church is to make this world home for others.  We were once homeless, but through Christ we are brought home once again.  Physically, the world has not been restored; relationally, we still mess things up; but the future promised home is breaking into this world now, through Christ, through His church.  We the church are called to bring the homeless home.  

And what does home look like?  It looks like loving God, and loving people.

2. We learn that a good living-space is a vital part of loving people as ourselves.  When there's only one tent, everyone under it is everyone else's neighbour, and their actions directly affect the living conditions of everyone else.  The Good Samaritan didn’t slap on some bandaids and then send the injured man to a slum.  He took him to a good inn where he could be comfortable.  He was concerned about the injured man’s environment.  Because we all live under the same roof, and because our actions make this world either more habitable or less habitable for others, we cannot ignore taking care of this planet.  What do we like in our homes?  Do we like piles of rotting trash?  Because that is the current home for many children in third world countries, and I guarantee that much of that trash was the by-product of creating things for North American consumption.  Do we like the strong stench of decay filling our homes?  Because that is what happens for people who live near rivers when runoff triggers major fish kills.  Do we like constant loud noises?  Water contaminated with fecal matter?  Dead birds with stomachs full of plastic?  What do we like in our homes?

How is degrading the environment and then allowing the destitute to occupy those places the loving Christian thing to do?

Loving our neighbour as ourself goes way beyond having warm feelings for others.  It goes beyond giving them a few bucks.  It means giving them more and giving ourselves less.  It means fixing the world in its relationships and in its physical aspects, so that the homeless will feel at home once again.

And when it is the church that is leading this, people will wonder at the healing power of God.

Now the New Testament says very little about our role in nature.  But if we all live under the same tent, and if we share this tent with living things in complicated ecological relationships, then loving our neighbours has to extend to other living creatures, for two main reasons.  First, they are our neighbours as well. This world wasn’t made just for us, it was made for them too.  We have made it virtually uninhabitable for many of them, and we the church need to return to our original mandate, which was to care for them and ensure that God’s promise of abundance comes true.

Second, and more selfishly, everything is one connected package.  By ensuring that this world is home to not just ourselves, but to all manner of living things, ensuring that birds and fish and land animals flourish, we truly do love our human neighbours as we love ourselves, because in an ecosystem everything has its place.  Do we hate getting bit by mosquitos?  So do our neighbours.  So we love our neighbours as ourselves by protecting the bats, so that the mosquito population doesn’t overwhelm us.  Do we love clean, healthy lakes?  So do our neighbours.  So we ensure that we don’t overfish our lakes or dump our sewage into them, so that the lake ecosystem can maintain a fine balance and keep the algal population down.  Funny enough, we can’t wipe out the mosquitos either, because their larvae are an important part of a healthy lake community.

I want to share one example of this complexity, and how it affects humans.

This is an image of a mangrove swamp.  Mangrove swamps are generally found in tropical and subtropical regions the world over.  Mangroves are incredible trees, extending their roots into salt water, which few plants can do.  These roots become important nurseries for young fish, including commercial fish.  In Florida, for instance, approximately 75% of Florida’s game fish and 90% of Florida’s commercial fish rely on mangrove swamps for safety from predators.  And of course numerous non-commercial fish, that act as food for commercial fish, also rely on these nurseries.  Currently approximately 150 000 hectares of mangroves are destroyed each year, resulting in the loss of 20% of the world’s mangrove trees.  They are now considered to be more vulnerable than the rainforests.  In a world that is heavily overfishing its commercial fisheries, the loss of these nurseries results in the loss of food and jobs for humans.  1.2 billion people rely on fish as their primary source of protein, and yet 30% of our global fisheries are currently collapsed – that means, they have been closed down to prevent the extinction of once populous fish.  And of those fish caught, greater than one half are dumped overboard as unwanted bycatch, or are used to feed pets and livestock.  By removing the mangroves, we hurt an already hurting system, that only hurts our fellow neighbours.  We the rich don’t really feel this impact, but when 27% of children under the age of five in Peru are malnourished, and Peru is a country with vast fish resources, our neighbours certainly do.

Furthermore, mangroves are remarkably good at storing carbon.  150 000 hectares of mangroves can capture 225 000 metric tons of carbon dioxide.  When they are cut down, however, their loss results in the release from the disturbed soils of 11 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.  So we contribute to greenhouse gases which lead to warmer temperatures, which allows tropical diseases to invade border towns in the US, as we are currently seeing today.

So cutting down the mangroves is certainly not loving your neighbour as yourself.

But it gets more complicated.  Why are they being cut down?  For jobs, of course!  To make room for shrimp farms.  In Indonesia, extensive shrimp farming has led to massive destruction of mangrove swamps.  The tiger shrimp farmed there must first be caught in the wild, and the shrimp fishery is one of the most destructive fisheries in the world.  For every juvenile tiger shrimp caught for these farms, 160 juvenile fish and crustaceans are discarded, dead, as by-catch.  These shrimp must then be fed, and they are fed wild-caught fish – 4 kg of fish to produce 1 kg of shrimp.  These shrimp are then imported to the US and Canada for the consumption of us rich folk. 

So not only do we lose fish nurseries, but the farms do even more damage. 

Finally, in December of 2004 a massive tsunami devastated the coast of Indonesia and thirteen other countries.  A total of 230 000 lives were lost in the chaos.  The places where the tsunami had the lowest impact?  Places fringed by mangrove swamps, where the shrimp farmers had yet to invade.  The mangroves absorbed some of the energy of the incoming waves.

Everything is connected.  Genesis one envisions the world as one grand tent, one great big living space made to be inhabited by all God’s creatures.  But this interconnection meant that our fall from grace made not just us homeless, but the rest of the world as well.  We see the consequences the world over, and it can be so overwhelming, so depressing.  I give you these figures to inform you, and to motivate the church to start thinking ecologically.  Thinking about only humans, thinking that our mandate is only to evangelize and to help the poor, is simply too limited and is ill-equipped to prepare the church to be a neighbour.

But we can’t wallow in depression.  In fact, we have cause to be excited, because our hope has already arrived through Jesus Christ!  We the church have the opportunity, which is a blessing, to participate in the restoration inaugurated through Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.  Hopelessness is a feeling of the past, because we are no longer homeless, but are bringing the homeless home.  One day we really will be home.

Revelation 22 verse 1 in the NIV is headed with ‘Eden restored.’  It reads, ‘Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse.

That is our hope, that home will be restored.  In the meantime it is up to us as the church to bring the homeless home.  And we do that by loving God and loving people, and we can do those in part by loving the environment.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

LOVED this post Matthew. I just finished it but I can already tell that it is going to help shape my understanding of the gospel story. Also great new food for thought re: firmament.